The joy of listening live at the BBC Proms

Jon Jacob, writer of the Thoroughly Good Blog and producer of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast explains why the BBC Proms is the best place to start to discover classical music

I first attended a Prom concert in 1991 with friends I’d spent the summer playing music with in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. Keen to relive our own experience of performing Mozart’s Requiem at Snape Maltings earlier that year, selected wind players, brass players, and string players all honed in on one Prom featuring Mozart’s much-loved work. We queued all day to hear the work we’d all enjoyed playing only months before.

The day was hot and long and, by the time the front of house staff let is in, the interior of the Royal Albert Hall was magical. Our dedication starting to queue early in the day had paid off too: me, Tim, Chris, Gig, and Ali, had managed to secure a second row position in the Arena, a handful of metres away from the edge of the stage. We stood within reach of proper grown ups playing music we knew inside out. It was almost as though we were playing the music ourselves.

Spurred on by the experience, two days later I attended another Prom. This time it was the National Youth Orchestra playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. I still have the programme from the day.

Looking through the programme now I’m amazed at some of the names I recognise. In the violins (in addition to the school friend Rebecca Livermore who I’d gone to see play who now plays in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) names include Katherine Hunka, Hannah Perowne, Matthew Truscott, Veronica Freeman, and Maxine Kwok (now of LSO fame). I remember the concert being a high-octane affair executed by a crowd of musicians on stage. The atmosphere looking at the stage from the Arena was electrifying.

Get as close to the stage as possible

Proximity in live music is everything for the audience. The closer you are to the action the more visceral the experience is going to be. Detail promises excitement; proximity guarantees detail. Get as close to the stage as you possibly can.

It’s not always been the case. Sometimes proximity can result in an experience so overwhelming as to be very nearly uncomfortable. This was certainly the case at the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Messiaen at the Roundhouse a few years back. If ever there was a concert that absolutely should have been put on at the Royal Albert Hall that was one of them. Music that commands it be played the loudest it possibly can needs a big space and a distant view to create a theatrical experience.

Other similarly vivid memories include the feel of the cold stone on my bare legs as me, Hannah, Richard and Simon sat in the gallery high up above the action listening to the technicolour excitement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Or listening to a pal playing a Mahler symphony in an international orchestra and as the applause broke out all around turning to his wife sat next to me and hugging her, both of us with tears in our eyes.

Our unexpected emotion wasn’t something only experienced at the Proms. Classical music has the power, assuming all the conditions are right in the moment, to do just this. To move. Your most lasting memories stand a good chance of being created at the Royal Albert Hall and specifically at a Prom concert.

This is one of the absolute (and consistent) joys of the BBC Proms. Its home – the Royal Albert Hall – is a grand theatrical space that plays host to various differently scaled performances. It feeds off grand symphonic works, almost daring orchestras to cram as many players onto its stage. It also welcomes the solo performer, promising epic drama with an empty stage and a single spotlight. The Royal Albert Hall does drama well. 

The physical space plays a significant part in the experience of any classical music performance at the BBC Proms. That’s why being there is integral and why there is on Thoroughly Good a selection of must-attend concerts and recommended seating for each event. The basic rule of thumb is simple: get as close to the action as you possibly can. If that means logging on on the day of the concert in order to get in the digital queue for an arena ticket and promming, then so be it. 

When you see from close range a bow on a string and feel the sound that emanates you’ll get the thrill. Recorded music tries hard, but it really doesn’t cut it in comparison. Something magical happens when you see, hear and feel at the same time.   

There were a number of years when I didn’t return to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. It wasn’t until I ended up working at the BBC and witnessed how colleagues put the season together (and then worked on it) that I came to appreciate it on a different level. Here was a mammoth broadcast event – 70-odd concerts spanning the summer, every one broadcast live on Radio 3, and an entire season trying to offer something for everyone whilst introducing something new to someone. It was often in the firing line for criticism for not being what the critic thought the Proms should be – a metaphor for public service broadcasting. 

That dissonance still exists today. Amid the culture wars, the Proms are often used as a handy stick to beat both the classical music industry and the BBC with. But it remains a valuable shop front for the UK and international classical music industry. The BBC Proms is an opportunity to look in on the classical music world. It’s not exhaustive nor necessarily comprehensive. Perhaps in some respects, it’s a starting point. All it asks of you the audience member is a sense of curiosity and excitement. Come with an open mind.

There are no guarantees – that’s the joy of live

Not every concert will delight. Even if you think it might or someone tells you it will be excellent there are no guarantees to live unamplified performance. That’s not a failing of classical music, that is part of the joy of it. There are so many variables that risk the live experience. That is what makes live music so utterly addictive an experience.

Many who fear stepping into the concert hall have very high expectations, shaped in part by the on-demand lives we all live. Any concert demands the audience takes the risk of ending up disappointed, or (if you’re more of a glass half full kind of person) diving in in pursuit of creating a lasting memory. Take the risk. Take the plunge.

On the Thoroughly Good Proms homepage you’ll find recommendations of concerts to attend, concerts to listen to, and even concerts to watch on TV.

I’ve selected these largely because of their potential for spectacle. It’s my belief that being in a large space surrounded by other audience members looking on at the detail going on on stage is possibly the best way to get the bug like I have. So, inevitably, the choice of repertoire is biased to what I’ve been drawn to – big symphonic works.

I’ve also included a list of concerts to listen to on the radio. Listening live isn’t the cop-out some regular Prommers led me to believe it was when I secured my first season ticket back in 2007. The sound mix broadcast live from the Albert Hall consistently conveys something of the excitement in the space – perhaps, even more – in a way that triggers my emotion. It is, long before we get on to the music, old-school radio where the pictures are better than real life.

Jon Jacob writes the Thoroughly Good Blog and produces Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast

Discover concerts in the Thoroughly Good Guide to the BBC Proms

Ivors Composer Awards 2021 nominees announced

The Ivors Academy have revealed the nominees for classical, jazz and sound art for The Ivors Composer Awards 2021. The winners will be revealed in a live ceremony on 8 December at the British Museum.

In a change with previous years and to reflect the impact the pandemic has had on the music world, The Ivors Academy has included new works on a commercial recording – as long as the recording was the first time the work had been heard by the public – in addition to concerts that were live-streamed anywhere in the world, as long as the concert could be viewed by the UK public.

This year’s nominations include composers such as Tansy Davies, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Goodall and James MacMillan. 40% of the composers in the running for an Ivor Novello Award this year are first-time nominees, including Nwando Ebizie, Nikki Iles, Dave Manington, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Alex Paxton, who has three works nominated.

The Ivors Composer Awards are supported by PRS for Music.

JAZZ COMPOSITION


BYE by ALEX PAXTON
for small jazz ensemble and improviser

CORNCRACK DREAMS
by ALEX PAXTON
for trombone, keyboard and drums

DREAMS by BRIGITTE BERAHA and DAVE MANINGTON
for jazz sextet

THE CAGED BIRD by NIKKI ILES
for jazz band

THE RISE OF THE LIZARD PEOPLE by IVO NEAME
for jazz orchestra

LARGE SCALE COMPOSITION


CATAMORPHOSIS by ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR
for orchestra

DEMOCRACY DANCES by CONOR MITCHELL
for symphony orchestra

KAAMOS by LARA POE
for orchestra

PHARMAKEIA by JAMES DILLON
for 16 players

THIS DEPARTING LANDSCAPE by MARTIN SUCKLING
for orchestra



SMALL CHAMBER COMPOSITION


A FIELD GUIDE TO PEBBLES by LYNNE PLOWMAN
for percussion duo

NIGHTINGALES: ULTRA-DEEP FIELD by TANSY DAVIES
for string quartet

SOMETIMES VOICES by ALEX PAXTON
for keyboard and drums

STILL LIFE by STEPHEN GOSS
for cello and guitar

WICKED PROBLEMS by LAURA BOWLER
for voice, bass flute and fixed tape part

SOLO COMPOSITION
‘ECHO THE ANGELUS’ by JAMES DILLON
for piano

FADING SPELLSPHERE by BEN GAUNT
for piano

LAMPADES by MARTIN IDDON
for tuba and fixed media

LINEAR CONSTRUCTION (NO. 5) by ALEX GROVES
for cello

NO ONE by ROBIN HAIGH
for harp



SOUND ART


FIRE PREVENTION OR HOW TO SING A LABYRINTH OR THE REBEING AND THE BURNING OF THE LABYRINTH by NWANDO EBIZIE
for piano, voice and electronics with field recordings

LONDON 26 AND 28 MARCH 2020: IMITATION: INVERSION by CAROLINE KRAABEL
for baritone, alto and sopranino saxophones and double bass

NOCTURNAL INSIGHTS by NIKKI SHETH
for field recordings of crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife in the UK

THE CUCKMERE SOUNDWALK by ED HUGHES
for chamber orchestra

WAVES OF RESISTANCE (RADIO ART WITHOUT BORDERS) TONNTA FRIOTAÍOCHTA (EALAÍNE RAIDIÓ GAN TEORAINNEACHA) by MAGZ HALL
radiophonic poem, WASP synth and location recordings from the Irish Sea and Canterbury Garden



VOCAL OR CHORAL COMPOSITION


BARUCH – TEN PROPOSITIONS OF BARUCH SPINOZA FOR TENOR AND PIANO by MICHAEL ZEV GORDON
for tenor and piano

GYÖKÉR (ROOT) by THOMAS ADÈS
for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists

NEVER TO FORGET by HOWARDGOODALL
for SATB choir and small orchestra

THINKING I HEAR THEE CALL by CHERYL FRANCES-HOAD
for soprano, speaker and electronics

VIDI AQUAM by JAMESMACMILLAN
for 40 a cappella voices, split into 8 SSATB choirs

National Youth Orchestra bassoonists rock (and pop)

Hats off to the National Youth Orchestra bassoonists this year (and the organisation’s social media bod) for capturing and sharing this cracking arrangement of a Britney Spears ‘Toxic’. Packed full of energy. Funny too.

What really gets me is how this time a year ago there were so many organisations pumping out lockdown videos consisting of isolated musicians. Back then we were marvelling at their isolated togetherness. A year later, we’re marvelling at them in real life.

Uplifting stuff. And there’s more to come, apparently.

Benjamin Grosvenor and Hyeyoon Park return with the second Beckenham and Bromley Festival

This is a little niche and perhaps bordering on the hyper-local for regular readers of the Thoroughly Good Blog, but it wouldn’t be Thoroughly Good if I didn’t highlight something happening on my own patch here in South East London, a tantalising 10-minute bike ride away from me here in Hither Green: the second Beckenham and Bromley Festival is scheduled for 17th – 19th September 2021.

The Bromley & Beckenham International Music Festival will this year stage four concerts at Bromley Parish Church, St Peter and St Paul’s Church.

Artistic Directors and Bromley residents Benjamin Grosvenor and Hyeyoon Park (this brings my tally of classical music talent on my doorstep to a mind-boggling ten people) founded the festival with festival director Raja Halder, putting on four concerts and raising £4200 for a local hospice too.

Watch Hyeyoon Park and Timothy Ridout perform Martinu’s Three Madrigals in the Beckenham and Bromley International Festival 2020

This year violist Timothy Ridout and cellist Bartholomew LaFollette return, plus there’s a festival debut from BBC Young Musician winner Laura van der Heijden. Concert programmes will include Rachmaninoff’s Trio Élégiaque No.2, Schubert’s Trio No.2 in E-flat and Britten’s Lachrymae, one of the 20th century’s greatest works for viola and piano, and the festival finale including Brahms’ titanic Piano Quintet.

The festival will also feature Joseph Tawadros in a programme of his own original music. Born in Cairo and raised in Sydney, Tawadros is a multi-award winning composer, improviser and champion of his extraordinary instrument, the Oud. His music draws on Arabic traditions combining it with western classical, jazz, world, folk, metal and bluegrass. 

Joseph Tawdross

Free tickets for under-12s and a fiver for under-21s. Everyone else, £22. Not bad.

To book tickets and get directions to St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Bromley, visit the Beckenham and Bromley International Festival website.

Restrictions might be lifting on 19th July but things are from clear, according to the RPO

News that COVID restrictions will be eased across England on 19 July is undoubtedly good to hear. The bookending of this painful period symbolised by the removal of mandatory mask-wearing and greater freedom in the hospitality sector gives a sense of uplift. Renewal. Recovery.

Be wary of getting carried away however. Arriving in my (and countless other journos) inbox as soon as the Prime Minister made his announcement was this comment from James Williams, the MD of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:

“Whilst the Government’s announcement advising that Covid restrictions will be lifted from 19 July gives us all the sense of hope we need, to date the Government has failed to provide the performing arts with a sustainable operational roadmap that will ensure the economic viability of performances and the safety of venues, artists and audiences.

“There is an important task to be done rebuilding public confidence and providing the necessary reassurance that returning to the concert hall and the enjoyment of live performances can be done safely. This requires from Government a robust roadmap that sets out a transition from socially-distanced concerts to full-capacity events based on clear criteria, risk management protocols and meaningful, shared data from the Events Research Programme.

“Economically, venues and ensembles need full-capacity concerts, but the transition must be operationally and economically sustainable; the return to another lockdown in the autumn would be catastrophic for the sector. 

“The RPO is fully committed to playing its part in the ‘building back’ that lies ahead, including enriching lives and supporting wellbeing after numerous lockdowns. But to be viable the economic sustainability of our work depends upon audiences and performers being safe in the concert hall.”

Restrictions are not over until all parts of the economy are able to function in the way they were before the pandemic hit.

What BBC Proms concerts are on TV in 2021?

The BBC has announced which of this year’s Prom concerts will be broadcast on TV. The season starts on Friday 30 July and finishes with the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 11 December. Twenty concerts will be broadcast across BBC One, BBC Two, and BBC Four.

Every Prom concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and via the BBC Sounds app.

Friday 30 July

First Night Of The Proms
Part one is broadcast on BBC Two (8pm). Part two is broadcast on BBC Four (9pm).

Read more about tonight’s music in All You Need to Know: Vaughan Williams, Poulenc and Sibelius
Katie Derham
Sunday 1 AugustScottish Chamber Orchestra/ Maxim Emelyanychev BBC Four, 8:30pm

Read more about tonight’s music in All You Need to Know: Mozart Symphonies 39, 40, and 41
Tom Service
Thursday 5 AugustCity of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla BBC Four, 8pmPetroc Trelawny
Friday 6 AugustBBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Elim Chan with Sol GabettaBBC Four, 7pmSuzy Klein
Saturday 7 AugustThe Golden Age of Broadway BBC Two, time TBCKatie Derham
Sunday 8 AugustNational Youth Orchestra/ Jonathon Heyward with Nicola BenedettiBBC Four, 7pmJess Gillam
Friday 13 AugustAurora Orchestra/ Nicholas Collon BBC Four, 7pmTom Service
Sunday 15 AugustPhilharmonia Orchestra/ Santtu- Matias Rouvali with Víkingur Ólafsson
BBC Four, 7pm
Josie d’Arby
Thursday 19 AugustOpera Gala: To Soothe the Aching Heart BBC Four, 7pmPetroc Trelawny
Friday 20 AugustNubya Garcia
BBC Four, 7pm
Clive Myrie
Sunday 22 AugustLondon Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle BBC Four, 8pmSuzy Klein
Thursday 26 AugustChineke! / Kalena Bovell with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason BBC Four, time TBCTom Service
Friday 27 AugustAcademy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell BBC Four, 7pmJosie d’Arby 
Sunday 29 AugustCarnival of the Animals with the Kanneh-Mason Family and Michael Morpurgo
BBC Four, 8pm
Katie Derham
Thursday 2 SeptemberBBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Ilan Volkov with Lucy Crowe
BBC Four, 7pm
Jess Gillam
Friday 3 SeptemberMoses Sumney meets Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony OrchestraBBC Four, time TBCClara Amfo
Saturday 4 SeptemberCarnival of the Animals with the Kanneh-Mason Family and Michael Morpurgo
BBC Two, time TBC
Katie Derham
Saturday 5 SeptemberEnglish Baroque Soloists/ Monteverdi Choir/ John Eliot Gardiner BBC Four, 7pmPetroc Trelawny
Thursday 9 SeptemberSinfonia of London/ John Wilson with Miah Persson BBC Four, 7pmSuzy Klein
Friday 10 SeptemberArcangelo and Jonathan Cohen in Bach’s St Matthew Passion BBC Four, 7pmAnna Lapwood
Saturday 11 SeptemberLast Night of the Proms BBC Two/ BBC One, time TBCKatie Derham

Manchester Collective and Multi Story Orchestra team up with Southbank Centre for 2021/2022

It seems utterly incredible to be even considering a 2021/2022 season.

On Saturday I heard a friend and also a colleague worry about the possibility that there would be some kind of stipulation placed on the 19th July easing of restrictions. Like them, I look on the new Health Secretary’s promises with a degree of optimism. The 19th July like 21 June seems like such an arbritary date, based not on the prevalence of transmissable virus, rather the total number of those vaccinated. Whose to say that date won’t move?

Still. September 2021 seems long enough away to imagine of non-socially distanced audiences, an open members bar, and casual non-directed toing and froing in the Festival Hall foyer. Maybe. Just maybe. It might just happen. Just beyond the summer.

The Southbank Centre are previewing their forthcoming non-distanced season with some impressive new partnerships too. The Multi-Storey Orchestra now move from Peckham to Waterloo. I’m also really pleased to see Manchester Collective having secured a place in the Southbank Centre’s ongoing line-up. A good programming match.

Edward Gardner and Santtu-Matias Rouvali have their first appearances in their respective roles as Principal Conductors of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra in September. Karina Canellakis debuts in her new titled position as Principal Guest Conductor of the LPO and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra comes with five special projects in partnership with the Southbank Centre under their new Music Director Vasily Petrenko.

And there’s the promise of the New Music Biennial in 2022 too.

BBC Radio 3 will be in residence for the opening week, and will broadcast Tippett’s rarely-performed The Midsummer Marriage;

Manchester Collective will appear at the Purcell Room (2 Oct & 3 Dec) and Queen Elizabeth Hall (24 Apr & 14 May) showcasing artists including Hannah Peel, Lyra Pramuk, Vessel and Abel Selaocoe.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Sebastian Comberti play a Bach Saint-Saens Mashup

One of the unexpected highlights during the London Mozart Players Croydon concert with Sheku Kanneh-Mason was a touching arrangement of The Swan from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals, and the opening movement of Bach’s G Major cello suite.

The duet was played as an encore after Sheku’s performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto.

Now the London Mozart Players have released a separate recording of the duet as a YouTube Premiere, to launch their online Spotlight On Series – concerto performances with new generation performers including Jess Gillam, and Isata Kanneh-Mason. Fourteen year-old d Leia-Zhu also appears in the line-up later this year with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

The films will be available to watch for 30 days from first broadcast via the LMP website www.londonmozartplayers.com, with individual concert tickets (per household) at £10.

A 4-concert package is also available until 24 July: £30 (four concerts for the price of three). The films can be watched anywhere in the world where there is Internet access.

The series has been filmed and edited by Simon Weir at Classical Media.

Discover more about Spotlight On via the LMP website.

Sitkovetsky Trio’s new album release previewed with an animation by Pavel Hudec

The Sitkovetsky Trio have a new album out this coming Friday including a recording of the Ravel Piano Trio. They’ve commissioned animator Pavel Hudec.

The Journey of the Pantoum: shows some of the events surrounding the creation of the Ravel Piano Trio in A minor, and the influences that Ravel was inspired by, his Basque roots and the rush to finish the piece as World War 1 drew nearer. Various characters appear throughout the film, including the Sitkovetsky Trio at Theater Chatelet. 

An impressive creation that draws the eye.

Sitkovetsky Piano Trio’s Ravel Piano Trio is released by BIS on Friday 2 July.

Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky appeared on the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast back in 2019. Find the podcast on Spotify and Audioboom.

Stephanie Childress, Isata Kanneh-Mason and London Mozart Players at Cadogan Hall

With no programme there’s a risk of not quite knowing what it is you’re listening to. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially for those of us who consider curiosity to be the only requirement for the live music experience. Not knowing is A Boon.

Not knowing can also throw up some surprises. For the first twenty minutes of the London Mozart Player’s Cadogan Hall gig I thought I was listening to a Mozart overture from an opera I couldn’t quite remember the title of. Hence why I applauded heartily after the final chord, only to discover a few seconds later that the applause had petered out and the work was unfinished.

Something in the music that followed triggered a thought: that sounds like Beethoven, doesn’t it?

The confusion says something about early Beethoven symphonies I had forgotten about. Beethoven’s symphony number two has hints of Mozart, so too hints of the complexities in Beethoven’s writing that perhaps are more obvious in his later symphonies.

Conductor Stephanie Childress asserted herself on the podium with elegance, poise and panache. I was transfixed by the movement of her arms – motion from her shoulder all the way to the tips of her fingers. There was a sense of flow and grace in every move. Precise direction in a clear baton technique drew out some remarkable ensemble work and arresting textures and articulation.

Isata Kanneh-Mason played with verve throughout the demanding Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1, creating a tender melodic line in the second movement. Her fluid technique came the fore in the bravura third movement packed full of decorative elements that make the soloist reach for both ends of the keyboard. Isata was engaged but unfazed – a performance she fashioned from the instrument in front of her.

On a logistical front (these are unusual times), hats off to Cadogan Hall staff for being the venue who have managed to create as near normal a concert experience (including front of house) as I recall pre-pandemic. The acoustic isn’t quite so generous as St John’s Smith Square, nor as clear as Fairfields in Croydon, nor as supportive as Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.